Hamamatsu Unagi Diary

Shizuoka Prefecture (in the Chubu Region) is located on the Pacific coast, roughly halfway across Honshu, Japan’s main island. It is a long prefecture east-west. This prefecture is usually divided into three regions, western, central, and eastern, but this division is based on the old provinces of the Edo Period (1603-1867). After the Meiji Restoration, these three provinces were combined to form Shizuoka Prefecture. For this reason, it is said that there are considerable differences, for example, between the western and central regions of Shizuoka in terms of major industries and the temperament of the people.

The western region of Shizuoka Prefecture was formerly known as Totomi or Enshu, and its central city is Hamamatsu. (Incidentally, the name “Enshu” is still widely used today.) As of 2024, Hamamatsu is the largest city in Shizuoka Prefecture in terms of both population and area. It is primarily an industrial city, and has developed through industries such as musical instruments, motorcycles, and automobiles. In addition, the city is blessed with quite a few tourist resources, which include Lake Hamana and the Kanzanji Onsen hot spring resort in the suburbs. Also, the Hamamatsu Festival in early May, which is especially famous for its exciting kite-flying battles, attracts many visitors from both within and outside the prefecture.

There is a phrase often cited to describe the temperament of the people of Enshu. That is “Yaramaika,” an Enshu dialect for “Let’s give it a try.” Reflecting this positive disposition, perhaps, many companies started businesses in Enshu and have since grown into global corporations. Honda Motor Co., Ltd. and Suzuki Motor Corporation, both of which are major automobile/motorcycle manufactures, originally started out as small local factories in Hamamatsu, and the latter still has its headquarters there today. Toyota Motor Corporation is strongly associated with Aichi Prefecture, but the birthplace of Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries, is in what is now Kosai City (the city west of Hamamatsu). So, the company’s roots actually lie in Enshu.

Speaking of the food, Hamamatsu has two foods that are famous nationwide: Gyoza dumplings and Unagi (eels) dishes. The former is called “Hamamatsu’s soul food” and the latter is often described as “the king of Hamamatsu gourmet,” and it is worth noting that both are extremely nutritious foods. In addition to these two foods, soft-shelled turtles (“suppon”) and oysters have long been cultivated around Lake Hamana, and there is no doubt that these nutritious foods have supported the powerful and energetic people who embody Hamamatsu’s “Yaramaika spirit.” In this post, I would like to focus, in particular, on the “Hamamatsu eels” in Lake Hamana.

Lake Hamana is the birthplace of eel farming in Japan. In 1887, Hattori Kurajiro, a river fish merchant from Fukagawa, Tokyo, saw the lake from the train window while on a business trip to Osaka and thought, “This is the best place for aquaculture.” He is said to have actually got off the train and walked around the area. Then, in 1900, he acquired land in what is now the Fukiage district near JR Maisaka Station and began farming soft-shelled turtles first, and then eels, which led to the boom of eel farming along the shores of Lake Hamana. Over the years, this “Hamamatsu style” eel farming method gradually spread to other prefectures.

It is said that the reasons for the success of eel farming in Western Shizuoka included the warm climate (with an average annual temperature of 15 degrees Celsius), the large catches of glass eels in Lake Hamana (The lake is connected to the Pacific Ocean, so fish from the open ocean flow into the lake.), and the presence of thriving silkworm farming areas nearby, which made it easy to obtain silkworm pupae, which were often used in early eel farming to feed the baby eels. Another reason was that Hamamatsu is located almost halfway between Tokyo and Osaka (Kyoto), and with the opening of the Tokaido Line in 1889, it became possible to ship eels by rail to major eel-consuming areas. Shizuoka Prefecture’s farmed eel production peaked in the late 1960s, when eels from Shizuoka Prefecture accounted for about 70% of the national production.

Recently, the yield of farmed eels in Lake Hamana has been on the decline. Looking at the eel production by prefecture, Shizuoka Prefecture’s eel production is lower than that of Kagoshima and Miyazaki in Kyushu, and Aichi Prefecture to the west. Furthermore, eels that have been grilled and frozen in China or Taiwan are being imported into Japan in large quantities, and there are even chain restaurants that use these imported eels to serve unadon (eel rice bowls) at reasonable prices. Despite these difficult circumstances, many people in Japan still associate eels with Lake Hamana in Hamamatsu. The reason why the “Lake Hamana brand” of farmed eels is still going strong is probably related to the history I mentioned in the paragraph above.

Also, it seems to be true that the taste of locally farmed eels eaten around Lake Hamana is a little different from eels from other regions. In fact, there are many long-established eel restaurants in Hamamatsu that use their own hiden no tare (or “secret sauce”) to preserve the traditional taste, and many tourists say that, because eel is a luxury ingredient, they want to try it at a famous restaurant in Hamamatsu, the original Eel Kingdom. Uchiyama Mitsuharu, president of the Lake Hamana Fish Farming Cooperative, once said in a newspaper interview, “Lake Hamana eels are high quality because they are raised in good quality water.” In order to protect this “Lake Hamana brand,” Lake Hamana eels are now defined as “eels that have been raised in the Lake Hamana area (Hamamatsu City and Kosai City) for more than 60% of their life.”

Japanese people have a long history of eating eels. Eel bones have been excavated from Jomon Period (13,000 BCE – 900 BCE) ruins, and the Man’yoshu, Japan’s oldest collection of waka poetry, compiled in the 8th century, contains a waka that says, “Catch and eat eels because they’re effective for summer fatigue.” The Japanese custom of eating eel on Doyo no Ushi no Hi (the Midsummer Day of the Ox, which is based on the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac and often falls at the end of July or the beginning of August) to gain stamina is said to have begun in the mid-Edo period, when Hiraga Gennai (1728-1780), a renowned versatile genius, encouraged it.

Eels are known to be rich in various nutrients, especially vitamin A, making them ideal for surviving the hot and humid Japanese summer. In his 1998 book “Unagi of Lake Hamana, Past and Present,” Yasuji Aiso, then president of Aikane Shoten, wrote that one eel alone contains enough nutrients to sustain one’s energy for the day, citing the story of a man who ate so much eel for lunch that he wasn’t hungry by the evening and had only a beer to get by. Grew up in Western Shizuoka, I have personally experienced the fatigue-relieving effects of eels, and have had the experience of reaffirming this effect in conversations with other people on several occasions. One story that particularly made an impression on me was a story a friend of mine told me a few years ago about a housewife: She and her husband were invited to a relative’s house and were treated to a large eel feast, but afterwards her husband became too energetic, which caused some problems.

Kabayaki (where eels are butterflied and then basted), has long been the most popular way to prepare eel in Japan. In the Kanto region, the eel is cut open from the back, grilled without sauce (tare), then steamed, and then again grilled with tare. In the Kansai region, the eel is cut open from the belly and slowly grilled without steaming. The difference between these two cooking methods also leads to a difference in texture. Hamamatsu is located halfway between Tokyo and Osaka, so restaurants that use the Kanto style and those that cook in the Kansai style coexist in Hamamatsu.

We Japanese tend to think that Japanese people are the only ones in the world who eat eels, and that the only way to cook eels is as kabayaki, but Mr. William F. O’Connor, a professor in the Department of Business Administration at Asia University, disagrees with this stereotype. He posted about eels in eight parts from September 2 to October 23, 2022 on the blog “Drinking Japan” (link at the bottom of this page), which he co-runs with his son Robin. In the sixth installment of the series, titled “The Eel Abroad, Part 1,” he lists a variety of eel dishes from medieval Europe, citing the name of Calvin W. Schwabe, who is the author of “Unmentionable Cuisine.”

In the same post, he provides the following recipe for Eel Reversed, an obscure eel dish from medieval Europe, with help from Ms. Melitta Weiss Adamson, author of “Food in Medieval Times.”: “Eel Reversed can be seen as a variation on the theme of Unagi no Kabayaki. Like the Japanese dish, the fish is roasted on a spit and basted with a syrup. However, in this case, the skin of one eel is encased in the meat of a large skinned eel. The inner skin is seasoned with grains of paradise and wine or verjuice, and a little saffron and salt.* When the encasement has been completed, the creation is pierced with cloves, pieces of ginger, and pine nuts, after which the skin from the flayed eel is reunited with its body in a slipping-over maneuver.” (*The italics are taken from the book “Culinary Recipes of Medieval England” edited and interpreted by the late Ms. Constance Hieatt.)

Furthermore, in his seventh installment of the series, Professor O’Connor even deviates from the usual theme of his blog (i.e. Japanese beverages and their food pairings) and explores other possibilities for eels beyond just being a food source. He focuses on the fact that eel skin is tanned into a very fine, slightly textured leather that can be used to make luxury goods, and imagines the eel leather garments and accessories sold exclusively for couture consumers in boutiques across the city.

In Japan, there aren’t many dishes that use eel other than the classic unadon and unaju, but one of those few dishes is bokumeshi, a local dish from the Lake Hamana region. Bokumeshi is a mixed rice dish made by combining cooked rice with simmered eel and burdock. In the early days of eel farming, eels that grew too big and fat were called “boku” and were not marketable due to their large bones and thick skin. It is said that at the time, eel farm workers would cut these boku into chunks and mix them with rice to eat as staff meals, and this is the origin of bokumeshi. Since then, it has been eaten mainly as a home-cooked dish, but as the price of eel rose, it is said that the number of households making it gradually decreased. Currently, the number of restaurants in Hamamatsu where you can eat this local dish is very limited. (Or perhaps it would be better to say that there are “almost none.”)

Another eel-related specialty of Hamamatsu is the Unagipie Pastry. Since its release by Shunkado in 1961, this sweets has been popular among people of all ages, from children to the elderly, and is a staple Hamamatsu souvenir. It is a sweet snack made from wheat flour baked with butter, but the key point is that it contains eel extract, which has made it synonymous with Hamamatsu. The recipe for the sauce spread on the freshly baked pie is a company secret.

The Unagi Pie Factory is an Unagipie production facility established by Shunkado near Lake Hamana in 2005, where visitors can get a close look at the workers known as “Unagipie artisans” at work. It’s particularly great that from the second floor you can get a panoramic view of the packaging and boxing lines, making you feel like the factory manager. You can also sign up for a guided group tour of the factory, and there is also a well-stocked gift shop on the premises. Currently, the facility is said to be visited by more than 600,000 people from within and outside the prefecture each year, making it a popular tourist spot in the Lake Hamana area.

The current method of eel farming in Japan is generally as follows: At first, fishermen catch wild young eels (called “glass eels”) that come to Japan from far south on the Kuroshio Current in winter, which are then purchased by eel farmers, who then raise them in their farm ponds to grow into adult eels and ship them out. This style is fundamentally not much different from the method used by Hattori Kurajiro 100 years ago in the early days of eel farming, which is surprising in a way. If it were possible to artificially raise eels from eggs to adulthood (we Japanese call it kanzen yoshoku or “total eel farming”), it would lead to various cost reductions, but there are still many mysteries surrounding the biology of eels, and even with modern science and technology, we have not yet reached the stage of Total Eel Farming on a practical level as of 2024.

Appendix

Progressive List of Relevant Bodies


Sightseeing Bodies in Western Shizuoka

Hamamatsu and Lake Hamana Tourism Bureau: Hamamatsu and Lake Hamana Tourism Bureau is a public interest corporation approved by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. This body was formerly known as the Hamamatsu Convention Bureau. It carries out public interest work, attracting and supporting conventions and promoting tourism. >>English website.
Hamamatsu Tourists Information Center (iN HAMAMATSU.COM): This is located inside JR Hamamatsu Station, and you can get tourist information about Hamamatsu City and the western area of ​​Shizuoka Prefecture. There are English-speaking staff as well as volunteer tourist guides to provide information on Hamamatsu’s tourism, culture, history, etc. >>English website.
Sightseeing & City Promotion Department of the Hamamatsu City Hall: This department mainly handles tasks related to the promotion of tourism and conventions, attracting visitors to the various spots around Lake Hamana. >>Website (Japanese only).

Unagi-related Organizations in Western Shizuoka

The Lake Hamana Fish Farming Cooperative: Established in 1949, this association is primarily involved in the management of eel farming, but also collects and distributes glass eels, purchases feed jointly, and processes and sells adult eels. They also deliver grilled eel to all parts of the country. >>Website (Japanese only).
The “Eel Town” Project Executive Committee: This is a group organized mainly by the younger generation within the Lake Hamana Fish Farming Cooperative (listed above). They have been working with local high schools and organizations to promote Hamamatsu as the “eel town.” They actually hosted the “High School Eel Cooking Contest” four times in the past (as of spring 2024). >>Website (Japanese only).
Shizuoka Prefecture Fisheries and Marine Technology Research Institute Lake Hamana Branch: At this prefectural facility, there are 24 thermostatic tanks of various sizes which are mainly used for research on eel seedling production and basic ecology and physiology of freshwater fish. >>Website (Japanese only).
Hamamatsu Association for Promotion of Specialized Eel Restaurants: Since its establishment in 1991, this organization has been carrying out various projects, including hosting events, in order to promote Hamamatsu as the “eel town.” >>English website.

Unagi Farmers and Producers in Western Shizuoka

Eel Farm Tenpo: Located on the shores of Lake Hamana, their main business is raising eels. But they also run a restaurant and an experience tour of the eel farm. >>Website (Japanese only).
Aikane Suisan: This is a long-established company with 90 years of tradition that specializes in eels. It wholesales eels from Lake Hamana to markets and eel specialty shops across the country. >>Website (Japanese only).
Ebisen: This is a seafood wholesaler in Hamamatsu, and deals in eel, shrimp, seafood, processed seafood products, and eel processed products. >>Website (Japanese only).

Vocational Schools in Western Shizuoka

NEW! Tokai Cooking and Confectionery Collage: This is a school where students learn Western cuisine, Japanese cuisine, Chinese cuisine, Western confectionery, and bread making through practical training. Petit Cazalis, the training restaurant attached to the school, offers restaurant internship and patisserie training, providing lunch, cakes and bread to the general public. >>Website (Japanese only)

NEW! OISCA Agri College: The current name of this school is OISCA Development Education College, but from April 2025 the name will be changed to OISCA Agri College. At this school, students learn the basics of agriculture through practical training. The training takes place in vast rice fields and tea plantations, and students learn about the cultivation of crops, quality control, vegetable harvesting, shipping, and sales processes. >>Website (Japanese only)

NEW! Hamamatsu Culinary and Confectionery College: At this school, students mainly study Japanese cuisine, Western cuisine, Chinese cuisine, and nursing care food. The school actively engages in interactions with local residents through corporate collaborations, event participation and planning, etc. >>Website (Japanese only)

Unagi-related Organizations in Central Shizuoka

The Shizuoka Eel Fisheries Cooperative: This organization was officially established by merging four eel farming associations in Shizuoka Prefecture. Now it offers eels that have been carefully raised by the 17 eel farmers, without any middlemen. >>Website (Japanese only).

Nationwide Unagi-related Organizations

The National Grilled Eel Association: Formerly known as the National Federation of Grilled Eel Merchants Associations, this organization is made up of approximately 150 grilled eel shops throughout Japan. The headquarters is located in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. >>Website (Japanese only).
The All Japan Sustainable Eel Farming Organization: This nationwide body aims to ensure the sustainable use of eel resources, and engages in activities such as proper management of eels, promoting exchanges and cooperation among international eel farmers. >>Website (Japanese only).

Photographs: taken in and around Hamamatsu,
by Koji Ikuma, unless otherwise noted.


Reference Links (New Window)

Blog by the authors of “Drinking Japan: It’s Not Just Sake.”

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